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“Yes in God’s Backyard”—A Useful, But Limited Form of Housing Deregulation

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America has a serious shortage of housing in many parts of the country, and the main cause of the probem is exclusionary zoning: regulations that severely restrict the amount and types of housing that can be built in many areas. One increasingly popular proposal for addressing the housing crisis is “Yes in God’s Backyard”: giving religious organizations like churches, synagogues, and mosques exemptions from zoning rules and other restrictions that would otherwise prevent them from building housing on their land. Rachel Cohen of Vox has a helpful summary of this idea and the growing support for it:

About five years ago, Harvey Vaughn, the senior pastor at Bethel AME, the oldest Black church in San Diego, heard a radio report about rising homelessness in his city. He wondered if his congregation, which owned a roughly 7,000-square-foot lot around the corner, could help.

Today, the lot is a construction site for a new housing complex that will offer 25 one-bedroom apartments for low-income seniors and veterans. It’s the first of what advocates hope will be many such projects in San Diego, led by a group called YIGBY, which stands for Yes in God’s Backyard, a spin on the pro-housing Yes in My Backyard movement.

In a country with a shortage of affordable homes and a surplus of religious institutions grappling with rising costs and declining memberships, developers are looking to partner with churches, temples, and synagogues to build new housing. And amid a thicket of local land-use regulations that complicate the construction, some elected officials are looking for ways to nudge these efforts along.

The YIGBY idea — working with faith-based groups to help address the housing crisis — originated from local advocates who knew homeless people eager to move from the streets into housing but unable to find any. The San Diego Association of Governments estimates San Diego County has a shortage of roughly 100,000 homes.

Local funders dedicated to solving homelessness helped bring the YIGBY concept to life, and new zoning laws approved in 2019 helped streamline the process further, removing requirements that developers first seek approval from local planning agencies or elected boards to build….

Now this model is poised to spread across California, helping to address the state’s severe housing shortage.

Last year California’s legislature passed the Affordable Housing on Faith Lands Act that, like in San Diego, streamlines approval for new projects on land owned by churches, so housing can no longer be blocked by zoning or environmental objections. This first-of-its-kind YIGBY law took effect in January.

The Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley estimates that, across California, there are more than 47,00 acres of land owned by faith-based organizations that could potentially be developed into affordable housing.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco who spearheaded the statewide YIGBY law, said California doesn’t yet have data on how the new law is being utilized, but he often hears from interested people who say their congregation is preparing to do it.

“Even if just 10 percent of the plots of land identified by Terner did it, that could lead to a massive increase in housing,” Wiener told Vox. “Overall it’s very, very popular and you can really build a huge diverse political coalition around it.”

This policy could potentially spread to other states. Letting religious organizations build housing on their property is likely to prove popular. Surveys suggest that much opposition to “YIMBY” housing policies may be driven by a combination of economic ignorance and fear and suspicion of for-profit developers. By contrast, most people have more positive attitudes towards religious organizations.

But, as Cohen also notes, even relatively ambitious YIGBY policies are unlikely to make more than a modest dent in housing shortages, especially in areas where there are severe zoning restrictions and high demand. Religious institutions own only a small proportion of land in areas with serious housing shortages.

Ultimately, the most compelling arguments for letting religious organizations build new housing on their property also apply to conventional secular property owners. And, despite suspicion of the profit motive, there is little reason to think religious entities will necessary build better or more affordable housing than commercial developers would.

Indeed, where allowed to do so, the latter have strong incentives to build affordable housing precisely because they are motivated by profit. to paraphrase Adam Smith’s famous statement about butchers, brewers and bakers: “It is not from the benevolence of the builder and the developer, that we expect our housing, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Other things equal, if I were a tenant (as I was in my younger days), I would probably rather rent from a randomly selected for-profit landlord than from a randomly selected religious institution. As a general rule, a commercial landlord is likely to be better at managing and maintaining the property, in part because of superior expertise—and because the landlord knows that a reputation for poor management is likely to result in lower profit.

Obviously, religious institutions could potentially hire professional developers and management firms to build and operate their new housing complexes. But that means bringing in the profit motive, at least to some extent. The developers and managers probably won’t do the work just to earn the church’s or synagogue’s good will, or even that of the Almighty.

Ideally, we should abolish exclusionary zoning across the board. Let both religious and secular property owners build whatever housing they want, subject only to narrowly defined “police power” health and safety restrictions.  But the best should not be the enemy of the good. Where YIGBY policies are politically feasible, but broader YIMBY reforms are not, we should by all means pursue the former.

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